January 13, 2016

Fethullah Gulen’s educational philosophy as a core value of the Hizmet movement

F. Zehra Colak

Since the beginning of the second millennium, the Hizmet movement (aka Gulen movement) has become a global subject of interest to many scholars in the field of social and political sciences. The voluntary, apolitical, religion-inspired and transnational nature of the movement has inspired many books, conferences, seminars, workshops and scholarly articles.

The Hizmet movement is a voluntary, faith-inspired, transnational civil society movement founded on the principles and ideas of Fethullah Gulen, a classic Turkish-Muslim thinker and writer.

Gulen is a Turkish Muslim preacher, writer and activist who has inspired the foundation of more than one thousand schools in many countries around the world, as well as dormitories, universities, and educational, cultural and interfaith dialogue centers (Ebaugh 2010). Gulen served as a preacher during the 1960s in Turkey. His ideas influenced many people from different sectors of Turkish society, not only because of his vast teaching about traditional Islamic knowledge, but also due to the diversity in the topics he delivered (Western philosophy, sciences, human rights, the importance of education and knowledge accumulation) (Ebaugh & Koc 2007).

His views diverged greatly from those of other scholars in Islam. For instance, he argued for the compatibility of Islamic values and faith with modern life and science, and proposed a tolerant approach towards non-Muslims by suggesting common grounds that can be achieved through dialogue and tolerance (Aras & Caha 2002; Agai 2002; Kalyoncu 2007). He called on people to build schools instead of mosques and to take active roles in society, merging activism with piety, which Ozdalga (referring to Weber, 2000) defined as ‘worldly ascetism’. The main characteristic of the Gulen movement – or the Hizmet movement – is the provision of non-stop service to others and self-dedication to good deeds (Ebaugh & Koc 2007).

As Afsaruddin has stated, “Hizmet, service to God through one’s work, particularly teaching, is a central tenet of Fethullah Gulen’s educational philosophy and has been taken to be indicative of “worldly asceticism” on his part” (2005:20). Thus, according to the movement’s ideology, the way to salvation is not only attained through traditional religious practices and going to the mosque, but also through alternative contemporary forms of Islamic activity (Agai 2002:34). Gulen says that the consent of God can be achieved by serving one’s society through self-discipline and hard work (Aras & Caha 2002). Therefore, the movement places great emphasis on good manners, hard work and shared responsibility towards other people (Ozdalga 2003).

As a matter of fact, schools founded by Gulen-inspired volunteers, often referred to as “Gulen schools”, were named regardless of Gulen’s personal wishes (Michel 2003), as there seems to be no organic link between Gulen and the schools other than a spiritual one (see Mohamed 2007:561). The educational philosophy of Gulen can be summarized in the following quotation from one of his books:

“As for man, real life is accompanied by knowledge and education. Those neglecting learning and teaching, even if they may be alive, can be considered as dead, because the aim of man’s creation consists of seeing, understanding and teaching learned knowledge to others”. (Agai 2002)

Historically, the first educational initiatives took place in Central Asia after the fall of the USSR in 1991 (Clement 2007). It was basically the historical, linguistic and ethnic proximity to those countries that attracted volunteers from the movement to take such initiatives that they considered a sacred vocation (Demir, Balci & Akkok 2000). Soon after, these initiatives spread to other parts of the world, stretching from the Caucasus to Africa and from Russia all the way to the Philippines. Volunteers on these missions included Turkish businessmen, teachers and ordinary people (Williams 2007). The schools they founded are secular and follow the national curriculum of the country in which they have settled. Notably, each school is an independent institution in the sense that administrative decisions and regulations are set by principals and teachers (Mohamed 2007). Schools’ funds, however, are supplied through various resources such as Turkish private companies or state support (Woodhall 2005; Peuch 2004; Michel 2003).

In many parts of the world, the quality of education provided by Gulen schools is relatively high, especially in the field of physical sciences where high technology laboratories and computer rooms are provided. Perhaps shedding more light on the educational philosophy of Gulen is appropriate here. There has not been one particular ideology promoted within the Gulen educational philosophy. Rather, a more ethical and moral pedagogical approach has been applied, in which educators act as role models for students to follow (Ozdalga 2003; Michel 2003). From Gulen’s perspective, teaching is of a sacred nature, and accordingly, teachers need to be equipped with the skills and values necessary to deliver their knowledge to pupils through role modeling (Mohamed 2007; Said 2006).

For Gulen, science and faith are not “only compatible but complementary” (Ebaugh 2010:35). He imagines a “Golden Generation” whose mind is nurtured by science and whose heart is enlightened by faith (Agai 2002; Nelson 2005; Mohamed 2007). From this perspective, Gulen’s educational philosophy is one of an encompassing and humanitarian nature (Afsaruddin 2005:21), and accordingly these schools irrespectively accept Muslim and non-Muslim students (Peuch 2004; Aras & Caha 2002; Michel 2003). In fact, Islamic religion is not being taught in Gulen schools if it is not part of the national curriculum and no explicit reference to Islam has been observed in the curriculum of schools. Despite the fact that religion is the inspirational source in the emergence of the movement (Agai 2002), the ethos promoted in the schools is universal and encourages hard work, tolerance, compassion and honesty. These ethical codes, referred to by Agai as “Islamic ethics on education” (2002) are underpinned in the Islamic doctrine; however, their expression is not restricted to Muslims (Michel 2003; Agai 2002; Clement 2007). Their humanitarian and “transconfessional” approach is what characterizes Gulen schools and the movement itself (Ozdalga 2003:67).

Even so, the Gulen movement has been subject to criticism by several social and political scientists. The fact that the exact number of its members is not known raises doubts as to whether the movement holds a second hidden political agenda. The movement has been viewed as an Islamizing threat to Turkey by some whilst other critics have accused the movement of having an anti-democratic and hierarchical structure within which Gulen exhibits his omnipotent power to drive his followers to bring the government down (Ozdalga 2003; Aras & Caha 2002). Other accounts, like Ozdalga’s, presume these criticisms to be a counter-action to the movement’s educational achievements. The fact that no thorough analysis has been made about the volunteers’ position, status and their relations to one another may raise doubts as to whether the movement benefits from a strict hierarchical network or a ‘de-centralised polymorphic’ structure (Williams 2007:586; Toguslu in press; n.d.).

It is not possible to speak of a precise Gulen pedagogy used in all schools opened by those who are inspired by the ideas of Gulen. Even the term ‘Gulen School’ seems problematic. The two things which are common for all these schools is that the initiative is taken by those who are inspired by Gulen and that they have Turkish origins. The contextual factors are almost always influential and even schools within the borders of the same city may be following totally different educational paths, as in the example of Lucerna schools and L’Ecole des Etoiles in Brussels.

Excerpted from the article: Colak. F. Zehra. “School as a Space for Recognition: Reading the Motivations of Turkish-Belgian Parents through Spatial Identification.” Hizmet Studies Review 
Vol. 2, No. 3, Spring 2015, 31-54

Refer to the original article for references used in the article

Published on http://www.gulenmovement.us/fethullah-gulens-educational-philosophy-as-a-core-value-of-the-hizmet-movement.html, 25 December 2015, Friday